Chun Doo Hwan and The Kwangju Uprising

Chun Doo Hwan (1980–1988)

Sadly, South Korean’s democratic impulses were thwarted again, as they had been at the close of Syngman Rhee’s reign. Once again the ROK’s powerful military establishment was the culprit. The new military strongman was Major General Chun Doo Hwan, chief of the Defense Security Command and a Park loyalist.

Chun had headed the investigation into Park’s assassination and together with an ally and friend, General Roh Tae Woo (b. 1932), had conducted the purge of the South Korean military in the immediate aftermath of Park’s death. In April 1980 Chun made himself head of the KCIA while keeping his post as commander of the Defense Security Command. At this moment, when a strong show of American support for democracy might have given pause to the ROK’s military, the American commander appeared to approve the coup that was in the making.

Protestors took to the streets. There were demonstrations of 50,000 in Seoul each day. On May 17, 1980, Chun declared martial law, closed the universities, dissolved the legislature, and banned all political activity. Thousands of political leaders and dissidents were arrested overnight on May 17–18, among them the three Kims—Kim Young Sam, Kim Dae Jung, and Kim Jong Pil.

The Kwangju Uprising

In the early morning of Sunday, May 18, 1980, soldiers seized Seoul and the provincial cities, setting up camps on the soccer fields of the various universities. The show of force and the effectiveness of military control quelled all resistance with relatively little bloodshed, except in the southwestern city of Kwangju, the center of South Cholla Province, a stronghold of the presidential candidate Kim Dae Jung.

On the second day of Chun’s coup d’état, an elite team of paratroopers launched a savage attack in Kwangju that unleashed a small-scale rebellion. On May 18 the paratroopers attacked a demonstration of about 500 Kwangju residents who were demanding the lifting of martial law.

In another country—even another dictatorship—this situation might have been met with bulletproof riot shields and tear gas. Instead, the paratroopers attacked with nightsticks and then bayonets, killing 200 people.

Over the next week hundreds of thousands of Kwangju residents poured into the streets. Seizing weapons from local armories, they drove the paratroopers from the city, formed citizens’ councils, and appealed to the American embassy for intervention to negotiate an end to the crisis.

Not only did the Americans not respond, they permitted the release of ROK frontline troops from their duties along the DMZ to help suppress the rebellion, a move still remembered with bitterness in South Korea.

Loudspeakers from helicopters told people to disarm and return to their homes. Shortly before dawn on May 27 soldiers entered the city, shooting at those who refused to disarm. The paratroopers and regular solders quickly managed to secure the city.

About 30 civilians died defending the provincial capitol, which the Kwangju resistance fighters had taken over as their headquarters. Altogether more than 200 were killed and several hundred more injured.

Chun arrested Kim Dae Jung on May 18, blaming him for the rebel-lion that started after his arrest. Kim was found guilty in a show trial and but for American pressure would have been executed; he was sen-tenced instead to life in prison.

By September 1980 Chun compelled Interim President Choi Kyu Ha to resign, and Chun assumed the office of interim president of the Republic of Korea. Subsequently, he was elected to a five-year term under a new constitution in February 1981. The new constitution provided for an electoral college that would elect the president, many of the electors being appointees of Chun.

Soon after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in January 1981, the new U.S. president invited the new ROK president to visit, the first head of state to be invited as an official visitor. Just before his visit to the United States, Chun broke up the Chonggye Garmet Workers Union, the union that had begun with the suicide of Chon Taeil.

Adding to the previous regime’s arsenal of antilabor tools, Chun created a special force of strike-breakers, the “white skulls” (paekkol). The white skulls were skilled in Asian martial arts and equipped with protective padding, shields, and motorcycles. Within a few years workers arrested under South Korea’s National Security Law constituted a third of all political prisoners.